ORONO — After losing three leads, the University of Maine men’s hockey team had to wait until overtime to celebrate Friday night.

Defenseman Patrick Holway’s slap shot 20 seconds into the extra period gave the Black Bears a 4-3 win over Merrimack at Alfond Arena.

Brendan Robbins scored a hat trick for Maine, but the Warriors kept coming back, tying it for the third time at 18:31 of the third period with their goalie pulled.

Robbins, a junior from Nashua, New Hampshire, scored at even strength, on a penalty shot and a short-handed goal.

Jeremy Swayman made 36 saves as the Black Bears held on for a key win.

It might be strange to think that a game against last-place Merrimack (7-16-4, 4-12-2 Hockey East) was critical, but the Black Bears are intent on climbing up in the Hockey East standings during the final month of the regular season. And for the first time in several years, Maine hopes to be a significant player once the playoffs begin.

Maine improved to 15-9-4 overall and 9-6-3 in Hockey East. The Black Bears vaulted from sixth place to fifth, still only one point behind fourth-place Boston University.

The top five teams receive a first-round bye in the playoffs, and the top four teams get home ice in the quarterfinals.

On Friday night, BU (10-7-2 in the league) beat Massachusetts 3-2, while UMass-Lowell (10-8) was idle and dropped into sixth place.

The fact that the Black Bears are scoreboard watching is a testament to their improvement. The past three years, Maine finished 10th or 11th in the league. Home ice, let alone a first-round bye, was not a thought.

This season, the Black Bears were predicted to finish near the bottom again. Maine Coach Red Gendron guaranteed that wouldn’t happen, and his players are backing him up.

The Black Bears and Warriors were locked in a back-and-forth first period until Emil Westerlund rushed up the left wing and found Robbins at the back door. Robbins stuffed it in at 18:32 of the first period.

Just 1:08 into the second, though, Swayman slipped and Marc Biega roofed a shot for a 1-1 tie.

Merrimack then went on a power play, but Robbins got a breakaway. He was hooked by Patrick Kramer, and Robbins was awarded a penalty shot. His backhand shot beat Aaron Titcomb at 3:04.

If the Black Bears had momentum, they lost it when Brady Keeper’s interference penalty gave the Warriors a 5-on-3 advantage. Brett Seney’s wrister tied it again at 4:09.

Merrimack went on its fourth power play late in the period, but Robbins began another short-handed rush. He faked a pass to Chase Pearson and scored on a wrist shot for a 3-2 lead.

The Warriors thought they tied the game with 2:19 left in regulation after Swayman was knocked out of the net by a Merrimack player. But the officials immediately ruled no goal.

Just 50 seconds later, with Titcomb pulled for an extra attacker, Ludvig Larsson scored on a rebound.

Merrimack outshot Maine, 39-28.

NOTES: Maine and Merrimack play again at 7 p.m. Saturday. Both Boston University and UMass-Lowell are off, meaning the Black Bears will have played the same number of league games as BU and one more than the River Hawks. … Of Maine’s remaining five games after Saturday, four are on the road, at Providence, New Hampshire and first-place Boston College (2). BC also comes to Orono for one game on Feb. 17.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH

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